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Letter 4 of 4: Brussels and beyond

by James Moss

Contributed by 
James Moss
People in story: 
Greville (Freddie) Moss
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Contributed on: 
11 June 2005

We old campaigners and for that matter anyone who has been in the Army for any length of time, are pretty cynical about men and affairs. Pompous declarations of high principles and moral purposes by our politicians and publicists, are ruthlessly criticised and made fun of, and there were many caustic comments when our address was changed to 'British Army of Liberation', but I can honestly say, and I am not speaking in the excitement of the moment, that there was not one of us who was not more deeply moved by the extraordinary welcome the people of Brussels gave us. They were half out of their senses with joy and excitement. The Germans had been leaving all the previous day, and some of our armoured cars followed on their heels. Early the next morning our advance tanks must have gone through, but we were not far behind them, and we seemed to have arrived just at about the time the majority of the people were really aware that "the English had come". We turned into the city proper at the Porte de Hal - a castle-like building standing at the beginning of a broad tree-lined Boulevard. The road leading up the middle was lined on either side with a seething mass of people, all in their best clothes, and many of the girls wearing dresses in the national colours, waving, cheering and shouting "Vive les Angalais," "Vive les Tommies" at the top of their voices, until we did not know which way to turn to acknowledge them. We made our way through this crowd with difficulty, stopping every now and again owing to holdups in front and then we were almost overwhelmed by the people trying to shake our hands, kiss us , thank us, and tell us how glad they were to see us. Then, and later in the day, whenever we got into conversation with the civvies, it was always the same theme: "We have waited four years for you, and now you have come."

From my seat on the roof of a wireless truck I looked back once or twice at the long line of vehicles following, with the throng of people turning to cheer each new arrival as it followed close on the heels of the one in front, and longed for a camera, or (more fancifully) a mike hitched up to a BBC outside broadcast van, so that I could convey the excitement of the scene more vividly to you than I can hope in a letter, which will reach you some time after the event. The best I can do, however, is a pretty terrible photo from a Flemish paper, showing a tank passing (or endeavouring to pass) through the City. Whether it was before we went through or after I cannot say - quite possibly it was after. But it gives you a rough idea of the scenes of that morning. Possibly you have seen better pictures in the English papers, but I am not sure that the Pressmen had got there by the time we were going through. An Army Film and Photographic Unit Jeep dashed in as we were going through, and pulled out in the square to start operations just after my truck passed, so you may have seen something of our procession somewhere, after all.

Before we got clear of the Boulevard and started to speed up a bit through the centre of the town, the members of the younger generation, particularly of the fair sex, decided that they did not want to leave us yet, and in next to no time the trucks were overwhelmed with them, inside, on the roof, in the drivers cab so he could hardly steer. I had a young fellow and a girl whom I took to be his sister, on top with me. They seemed to be students by their appearance and manner, had been to London before the war, and spoke fairly good English - and so do the majority of the educated classes in Belgium. The centre of the city was rather less crowded than the tree-lined Boulevard, but the scenes were much the same. Here my new friends decided it would be best to get off, though the people on most of the trucks stayed on, apparently too happy to bother how far we might take them out of the city before they got another chance to alight. A bit further on, nearly out of the main part of the city, with the streets almost deserted now because everyone was going the other way to meet the columns entering from the opposite side, my truck was about to cross a bridge over the canal when three young men in shoddy civilian clothes dashed out from a side street shouting "Hi! Stop! We are Americans. Take us on board." For a moment we could not make out what it was al about, rather thinking it was some Belgians who could speak a bit of English and who had had too much to drink. Then we stopped as they persisted, and they climbed up on the roof with me. It turned out that they were American airmen who had been shot down months before and had been in a prison camp in Brussels. The previous day the Germans had tried to move them to Frankfurt with the other prisoners, but the Belgian patriots had blown up the line and they managed to escape when the train went back to Brussels. They had not dared to show themselves openly before, because there were still Germans in some quarters of the town. And boy! Were they glad to see us, in their own words. They had not been well treated, by any means, until the last two or three weeks when the German defences in France were crumbling, and their appearance certainly bore out this statement. Well this sure is some day, I thought to myself, suiting the idiom of my thoughts to the Yankee environment. A bit later we lost them, however, for they caught sight of two more of their number (I think there were forty of them, all told, in this camp) with a truck of another unit by the side of the road and jumped off to join them.

We carried on a bit further and parked about two miles out of the city. For the next three days, the moment we could get clear of pressing work, we went into the town, where we were immediately siezed by a party of Belgians, usually of mixed ages and sex, treated like long lost friends, dragged (not unwillingly) off to the cafes to celebrate the "liberation" with much drinking of beer, wine, liquor and champagne, much talking, both serious and "insouciant", occasional singing (not started by us however), of "It's a long way to Tipperary" and "We'll hang out the washing on the Seigfried Line", and finally much exchanging of addresses and warm "au revoirs". The fact most of us had only French money, which was no good, did not matter - there was no question of us paying for anything. I could go on at length to describe the three visits which I and another fellow paid to Brussels - two evenings and an afternoon, but it is time to close this letter or the war will be over before I get it off. Suffice it to say that we all had a marvelous time and made many fine friends, and that we left Brussels with deep regret, but many happy memories.

Brussels is a very fine city, smart and prosperous looking even in war time and with flags and decorations everywhere, with crowds of gay civilians celebrating until late into the night it resembled a carnival city. It was almost untouched by the hand of war, though the Germans, before they left, set fire to the Palais de Justice, one of Europe' s finest buildings but the interior was very badly damaged before the fire was but out. There does not seem to have been any serious resistance movement in Brussels, at any rate until our armies were advancing across France, but there can be no doubt that the attitude of its people towards "les Boches" was one of consistent though suppressed hatred. I like to remember two remarks which illustrate their feelings.
One, by a young woman of 30, who looks after father in their house about seven miles outside the city. "I was in Brussels", she said, "when the Germans marched in in 1940, and I watched them hoist the Swastika flag over the Hotel de Ville, I felt my heart sink." At another time we were in discussion with a youngish doctor, and a lady I took to be his fiancee. She was saying - though not in a critical way - that we seemed to have been a terribly long while in coming, in starting the long promised invasion, to which statement we agreed. Just then a man came in with a bundle of copies of "la libre Be, a famous Belgian liberal paper which I should imagine had been suppressed while the Germans were in occupation and she bought one. I then asked whether the continuous German propaganda in all the newspapers did not lead people to eventually believe that we were never coming. She simply replied: "We did not read the papers. This is the first one I've bought for four years."

Along with the photo of the tank, I enclose two others from the same paper. They are of our section cookhouse, which established itself on the wide footpath by the main road, where it inevitably got lots of visitors. One of the photos shows the cooks giving food to the civilians, for during our days of continuous moving there was little time for anything beyond bully, tea and biscuits and consequently a tidy surplus of rations accumulated. I am afraid I cannot translate the Flemish captions for you. Incidentally I was complimented on my French more than once, though I did not always have to use it.

We have now left Brussels well to the west. Where we are now I cannot, of course say for the moment, but I have no doubt you can make a pretty good guess. Anyway all goes well and we have been enjoying better weather for the last eight or nine days - real September weather at first with sharp night frosts followed by brilliant sunshine in the daytime and the air like wine. The frosts have knocked-off recently, but the days are still fairly warm and sunny. I trust that everyone is well, and I hope that I shall be seeing you all by Christmas. That seems quite a reasonable possibility at the moment but don't count on it of course.

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